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    Printing a new approach to fusion power plant materials

    When Alexander O’Brien sent in his application for graduate school at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, he had a germ of a research idea already brewing. So when he received a phone call from Professor Mingda Li, he shared it: The student from Arkansas wanted to explore the design of materials that could hold nuclear reactors together.

    Li listened to him patiently and then said, “I think you’d be a really good fit for Professor Ju Li,” O’Brien remembers. Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Engineering, had wanted to explore 3D printing for nuclear reactors and O’Brien seemed like the right candidate. “At that moment I decided to go to MIT if they accepted me,” O’Brien remembers.

    And they did.

    Under the advisement of Ju Li, the fourth-year doctoral student now explores 3D printing of ceramic-metal composites, materials that can be used to construct fusion power plants.

    An early interest in the sciences

    Growing up in Springdale, Arkansas as a self-described “band nerd,” O’Brien was particularly interested in chemistry and physics. It was one thing to mix baking soda and vinegar to make a “volcano” and quite another to understand why that was happening. “I just enjoyed understanding things on a deeper level and being able to figure out how the world works,” he says.

    At the same time, it was difficult to ignore the economics of energy playing out in his own backyard. When Arkansas, a place that had hardly ever seen earthquakes, started registering them in the wake of fracking in neighboring Oklahoma, it was “like a lightbulb moment” for O’Brien. “I knew this was going to create problems down the line, I knew there’s got to be a better way to do [energy],” he says.

    With the idea of energy alternatives simmering on the back burner, O’Brien enrolled for undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas. He participated in the school’s marching band — “you show up a week before everyone else and there’s 400 people who automatically become your friends” — and enjoyed the social environment that a large state school could offer.

    O’Brien double-majored in chemical engineering and physics and appreciated “the ability to get your hands dirty on machinery to make things work.” Deciding to begin exploring his interest in energy alternatives, O’Brien researched transition metal dichalcogenides, coatings of which could catalyze the hydrogen evolution reaction and more easily create hydrogen gas, a green energy alternative.

    It was shortly after his sophomore year, however, that O’Brien really found his way in the field of energy alternatives — in nuclear engineering. The American Chemical Society was soliciting student applications for summer study of nuclear chemistry in San Jose, California. O’Brien applied and got accepted. “After years of knowing I wanted to work in green energy but not knowing what that looked like, I very quickly fell in love with [nuclear engineering],” he says. That summer also cemented O’Brien’s decision to attend graduate school. “I came away with this idea of ‘I need to go to grad school because I need to know more about this,’” he says.

    O’Brien especially appreciated an independent project, assigned as part of the summer program: He chose to research nuclear-powered spacecraft. In digging deeper, O’Brien discovered the challenges of powering spacecraft — nuclear was the most viable alternative, but it had to work around extraneous radiation sources in space. Getting to explore national laboratories near San Jose sealed the deal. “I got to visit the National Ignition Facility, which is the big fusion center up there, and just seeing that massive facility entirely designed around this one idea of fusion was kind of mind-blowing to me,” O’Brien says.

    A fresh blueprint for fusion power plants

    O’Brien’s current research at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) is equally mind-blowing.

    As the design of new fusion devices kicks into gear, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the materials we have been using just don’t hold up to the higher temperatures and radiation levels in operating environments, O’Brien says. Additive manufacturing, another term for 3D printing, “opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for what you can do with metals, which is exactly what you’re going to need [to build the next generation of fusion power plants],” he says.

    Metals and ceramics by themselves might not do the job of withstanding high temperatures (750 degrees Celsius is the target) and stresses and radiation, but together they might get there. Although such metal matrix composites have been around for decades, they have been impractical for use in reactors because they’re “difficult to make with any kind of uniformity and really limited in size scale,” O’Brien says. That’s because when you try to place ceramic nanoparticles into a pool of molten metal, they’re going to fall out in whichever direction they want. “3D printing quickly changes that story entirely, to the point where if you want to add these nanoparticles in very specific regions, you have the capability to do that,” O’Brien says.

    O’Brien’s work, which forms the basis of his doctoral thesis and a research paper in the journal Additive Manufacturing, involves implanting metals with ceramic nanoparticles. The net result is a metal matrix composite that is an ideal candidate for fusion devices, especially for the vacuum vessel component, which must be able to withstand high temperatures, extremely corrosive molten salts, and internal helium gas from nuclear transmutation.

    O’Brien’s work focuses on nickel superalloys like Inconel 718, which are especially robust candidates because they can withstand higher operating temperatures while retaining strength. Helium embrittlement, where bubbles of helium caused by fusion neutrons lead to weakness and failure, is a problem with Inconel 718, but composites exhibit potential to overcome this challenge.

    To create the composites, first a mechanical milling process coats the ceramic onto the metal particles. The ceramic nanoparticles act as reinforcing strength agents, especially at high temperatures, and make materials last longer. The nanoparticles also absorb helium and radiation defects when uniformly dispersed, which prevent these damage agents from all getting to the grain boundaries.

    The composite then goes through a 3D printing process called powder bed fusion (non-nuclear fusion), where a laser passes over a bed of this powder melting it into desired shapes. “By coating these particles with the ceramic and then only melting very specific regions, we keep the ceramics in the areas that we want, and then you can build up and have a uniform structure,” O’Brien says.

    Printing an exciting future

    The 3D printing of nuclear materials exhibits such promise that O’Brien is looking at pursuing the prospect after his doctoral studies. “The concept of these metal matrix composites and how they can enhance material property is really interesting,” he says. Scaling it up commercially through a startup company is on his radar.

    For now, O’Brien is enjoying research and catching an occasional Broadway show with his wife. While the band nerd doesn’t pick up his saxophone much anymore, he does enjoy driving up to New Hampshire and going backpacking. “That’s my newfound hobby,” O’Brien says, “since I started grad school.” More

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    Fast-tracking fusion energy’s arrival with AI and accessibility

    As the impacts of climate change continue to grow, so does interest in fusion’s potential as a clean energy source. While fusion reactions have been studied in laboratories since the 1930s, there are still many critical questions scientists must answer to make fusion power a reality, and time is of the essence. As part of their strategy to accelerate fusion energy’s arrival and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has announced new funding for a project led by researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) and four collaborating institutions.

    Cristina Rea, a research scientist and group leader at the PSFC, will serve as the primary investigator for the newly funded three-year collaboration to pilot the integration of fusion data into a system that can be read by AI-powered tools. The PSFC, together with scientists from the College of William and Mary, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Auburn University, and the nonprofit HDF Group, plan to create a holistic fusion data platform, the elements of which could offer unprecedented access for researchers, especially underrepresented students. The project aims to encourage diverse participation in fusion and data science, both in academia and the workforce, through outreach programs led by the group’s co-investigators, of whom four out of five are women. 

    The DoE’s award, part of a $29 million funding package for seven projects across 19 institutions, will support the group’s efforts to distribute data produced by fusion devices like the PSFC’s Alcator C-Mod, a donut-shaped “tokamak” that utilized powerful magnets to control and confine fusion reactions. Alcator C-Mod operated from 1991 to 2016 and its data are still being studied, thanks in part to the PSFC’s commitment to the free exchange of knowledge.

    Currently, there are nearly 50 public experimental magnetic confinement-type fusion devices; however, both historical and current data from these devices can be difficult to access. Some fusion databases require signing user agreements, and not all data are catalogued and organized the same way. Moreover, it can be difficult to leverage machine learning, a class of AI tools, for data analysis and to enable scientific discovery without time-consuming data reorganization. The result is fewer scientists working on fusion, greater barriers to discovery, and a bottleneck in harnessing AI to accelerate progress.

    The project’s proposed data platform addresses technical barriers by being FAIR — Findable, Interoperable, Accessible, Reusable — and by adhering to UNESCO’s Open Science (OS) recommendations to improve the transparency and inclusivity of science; all of the researchers’ deliverables will adhere to FAIR and OS principles, as required by the DoE. The platform’s databases will be built using MDSplusML, an upgraded version of the MDSplus open-source software developed by PSFC researchers in the 1980s to catalogue the results of Alcator C-Mod’s experiments. Today, nearly 40 fusion research institutes use MDSplus to store and provide external access to their fusion data. The release of MDSplusML aims to continue that legacy of open collaboration.

    The researchers intend to address barriers to participation for women and disadvantaged groups not only by improving general access to fusion data, but also through a subsidized summer school that will focus on topics at the intersection of fusion and machine learning, which will be held at William and Mary for the next three years.

    Of the importance of their research, Rea says, “This project is about responding to the fusion community’s needs and setting ourselves up for success. Scientific advancements in fusion are enabled via multidisciplinary collaboration and cross-pollination, so accessibility is absolutely essential. I think we all understand now that diverse communities have more diverse ideas, and they allow faster problem-solving.”

    The collaboration’s work also aligns with vital areas of research identified in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “AI for Fusion” Coordinated Research Project (CRP). Rea was selected as the technical coordinator for the IAEA’s CRP emphasizing community engagement and knowledge access to accelerate fusion research and development. In a letter of support written for the group’s proposed project, the IAEA stated that, “the work [the researchers] will carry out […] will be beneficial not only to our CRP but also to the international fusion community in large.”

    PSFC Director and Hitachi America Professor of Engineering Dennis Whyte adds, “I am thrilled to see PSFC and our collaborators be at the forefront of applying new AI tools while simultaneously encouraging and enabling extraction of critical data from our experiments.”

    “Having the opportunity to lead such an important project is extremely meaningful, and I feel a responsibility to show that women are leaders in STEM,” says Rea. “We have an incredible team, strongly motivated to improve our fusion ecosystem and to contribute to making fusion energy a reality.” More

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    Ms. Nuclear Energy is winning over nuclear skeptics

    First-year MIT nuclear science and engineering (NSE) doctoral student Kaylee Cunningham is not the first person to notice that nuclear energy has a public relations problem. But her commitment to dispel myths about the alternative power source has earned her the moniker “Ms. Nuclear Energy” on TikTok and a devoted fan base on the social media platform.

    Cunningham’s activism kicked into place shortly after a week-long trip to Iceland to study geothermal energy. During a discussion about how the country was going to achieve its net zero energy goals, a representative from the University of Reykjavik balked at Cunnigham’s suggestion of including a nuclear option in the alternative energy mix. “The response I got was that we’re a peace-loving nation, we don’t do that,” Cunningham remembers. “I was appalled by the reaction, I mean we’re talking energy not weapons here, right?” she asks. Incredulous, Cunningham made a TikTok that targeted misinformation. Overnight she garnered 10,000 followers and “Ms. Nuclear Energy” was off to the races. Ms. Nuclear Energy is now Cunningham’s TikTok handle.

    Kaylee Cunningham: Dispelling myths and winning over skeptics

    A theater and science nerd

    TikTok is a fitting platform for a theater nerd like Cunningham. Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, Cunningham’s childhood was punctuated by moves to places where her roofer father’s work took the family. She moved to North Carolina shortly after fifth grade and fell in love with theater. “I was doing theater classes, the spring musical, it was my entire world,” Cunningham remembers. When she moved again, this time to Florida halfway through her first year of high school, she found the spring musical had already been cast. But she could help behind the scenes. Through that work, Cunningham gained her first real exposure to hands-on tech. She was hooked.

    Soon Cunningham was part of a team that represented her high school at the student Astronaut Challenge, an aerospace competition run by Florida State University. Statewide winners got to fly a space shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center and participate in additional engineering challenges. Cunningham’s team was involved in creating a proposal to help NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, designed to help the agency gather a large boulder from a near-earth asteroid. The task was Cunningham’s induction into an understanding of radiation and “anything nuclear.” Her high school engineering teacher, Nirmala Arunachalam, encouraged Cunningham’s interest in the subject.

    The Astronaut Challenge might just have been the end of Cunningham’s path in nuclear engineering had it not been for her mother. In high school, Cunningham had also enrolled in computer science classes and her love of the subject earned her a scholarship at Norwich University in Vermont where she had pursued a camp in cybersecurity. Cunningham had already laid down the college deposit for Norwich.

    But Cunningham’s mother persuaded her daughter to pay another visit to the University of Florida, where she had expressed interest in pursuing nuclear engineering. To her pleasant surprise, the department chair, Professor James Baciak, pulled out all the stops, bringing mother and daughter on a tour of the on-campus nuclear reactor and promising Cunningham a paid research position. Cunningham was sold and Backiak has been a mentor throughout her research career.

    Merging nuclear engineering and computer science

    Undergraduate research internships, including one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she could combine her two loves, nuclear engineering and computer science, convinced Cunningham she wanted to pursue a similar path in graduate school.

    Cunningham’s undergraduate application to MIT had been rejected but that didn’t deter her from applying to NSE for graduate school. Having spent her early years in an elementary school barely 20 minutes from campus, she had grown up hearing that “the smartest people in the world go to MIT.” Cunningham figured that if she got into MIT, it would be “like going back home to Massachusetts” and that she could fit right in.

    Under the advisement of Professor Michael Short, Cunningham is looking to pursue her passions in both computer science and nuclear engineering in her doctoral studies.

    The activism continues

    Simultaneously, Cunningham is determined to keep her activism going.

    Her ability to digest “complex topics into something understandable to people who have no connection to academia” has helped Cunningham on TikTok. “It’s been something I’ve been doing all my life with my parents and siblings and extended family,” she says.

    Punctuating her video snippets with humor — a Simpsons reference is par for the course — helps Cunningham break through to her audience who love her goofy and tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject matter without compromising accuracy. “Sometimes I do stupid dances and make a total fool of myself, but I’ve really found my niche by being willing to engage and entertain people and educate them at the same time.”

    Such education needs to be an important part of an industry that’s received its share of misunderstandings, Cunningham says. “Technical people trying to communicate in a way that the general people don’t understand is such a concerning thing,” she adds. Case in point: the response in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, which prevented massive contamination leaks. It was a perfect example of how well our safety regulations actually work, Cunningham says, “but you’d never guess from the PR fallout from it all.”

    As Ms. Nuclear Energy, Cunningham receives her share of skepticism. One viewer questioned the safety of nuclear reactors if “tons of pollution” was spewing out from them. Cunningham produced a TikTok that addressed this misconception. Pointing to the “pollution” in a photo, Cunningham clarifies that it’s just water vapor. The TikTok has garnered over a million views. “It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is,” Cunningham says, “ in this age of having all the information we could ever want at our fingertips, it’s hard to sift through and decide what’s real and accurate and what isn’t.”

    Another reason for her advocacy: doing her part to encourage young people toward a nuclear science or engineering career. “If we’re going to start putting up tons of small modular reactors around the country, we need people to build them, people to run them, and we need regulatory bodies to inspect and keep them safe,” Cunningham points out. “ And we don’t have enough people entering the workforce in comparison to those that are retiring from the workforce,” she adds. “I’m able to engage those younger audiences and put nuclear engineering on their radar,” Cunningham says. The advocacy has been paying off: Cunningham regularly receives — and responds to — inquiries from high school junior girls looking for advice on pursuing nuclear engineering.

    All the activism is in service toward a clear end goal. “At the end of the day, the fight is to save the planet,” Cunningham says, “I honestly believe that nuclear power is the best chance we’ve got to fight climate change and keep our planet alive.” More

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    A welcome new pipeline for students invested in clean energy

    Akarsh Aurora aspired “to be around people who are actually making the global energy transition happen,” he says. Sam Packman sought to “align his theoretical and computational interests to a clean energy project” with tangible impacts. Lauryn Kortman says she “really liked the idea of an in-depth research experience focused on an amazing energy source.”

    These three MIT students found what they wanted in the Fusion Undergraduate Scholars (FUSars) program launched by the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) to make meaningful fusion energy research accessible to undergraduates. Aurora, Kortman, and Packman are members of a cohort of 10 for the program’s inaugural run, which began spring semester 2023.

    FUSars operates like a high-wattage UROP (MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program). The program requires a student commitment of 10 to 12 hours weekly on a research project during the course of an academic year, as well as participation in a for-credit seminar providing professional development, communication, and wellness support. Through this class and with the mentorship of graduate students, postdocs, and research scientist advisors, students craft a publication-ready journal submission summarizing their research. Scholars who complete the entire year and submit a manuscript for review will receive double the ordinary UROP stipend — a payment that can reach $9,000.

    “The opportunity just jumped out at me,” says Packman. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” adds Aurora.

    Building a workforce

    “I kept hearing from students wanting to get into fusion, but they were very frustrated because there just wasn’t a pipeline for them to work at the PSFC,” says Michael Short, Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and associate director of the PSFC. The PSFC bustles with research projects run by scientists and postdocs. But since the PSFC isn’t a university department with educational obligations, it does not have the regular machinery in place to integrate undergraduate researchers.

    This poses a problem not just for students but for the field of fusion energy, which holds the prospect of unlimited, carbon-free electricity. There are promising advances afoot: MIT and one of its partners, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, are developing a prototype for a compact commercial fusion energy reactor. The start of a fusion energy industry will require a steady infusion of skilled talent.

    “We have to think about the workforce needs of fusion in the future and how to train that workforce,” says Rachel Shulman, who runs the FUSars program and co-instructs the FUSars class with Short. “Energy education needs to be thinking right now about what’s coming after solar, and that’s fusion.”

    Short, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at MIT, was himself the beneficiary of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) at the PSFC. As a faculty member, he has become deeply engaged in building transformative research experiences for undergraduates. With FUSars, he hopes to give students a springboard into the field — with an eye to developing a diverse, highly trained, and zealous employee pool for a future fusion industry.

    Taking a deep dive

    Although these are early days for this initial group of FUSars, there is already a shared sense of purpose and enthusiasm. Chosen from 32 applicants in a whirlwind selection process — the program first convened in early February after crafting the experience over Independent Activities Period — the students arrived with detailed research proposals and personal goals.

    Aurora, a first-year majoring in mechanical engineering and artificial intelligence, became fixed on fusion while still in high school. Today he is investigating methods for increasing the availability, known as capacity factor, of fusion reactors. “This is key to the commercialization of fusion energy,” he says.

    Packman, a first-year planning on a math and physics double major, is developing approaches to help simplify the computations involved in designing the complex geometries of solenoid induction heaters in fusion reactors. “This project is more immersive than my last UROP, and requires more time, but I know what I’m doing here and how this fits into the broader goals of fusion science,” he says. “It’s cool that our project is going to lead to a tool that will actually be used.”

    To accommodate the demands of their research projects, Shulman and Short discouraged students from taking on large academic loads.

    Kortman, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering with a concentration in mechanical engineering, was eager to make room in her schedule for her project, which concerns the effects of radiation damage on superconducting magnets. A shorter research experience with the PSFC during the pandemic fired her determination to delve deeper and invest more time in fusion.

    “It is very appealing and motivating to join people who have been working on this problem for decades, just as breakthroughs are coming through,” she says. “What I’m doing feels like it might be directly applicable to the development of an actual fusion reactor.”

    Camaraderie and support

    In the FUSar program, students aim to seize a sizeable stake in a multipronged research enterprise. “Here, if you have any hypotheses, you really get to pursue those because at the end of the day, the paper you write is yours,” says Aurora. “You can take ownership of what sort of discovery you’re making.”

    Enabling students to make the most of their research experiences requires abundant support — and not just for the students. “We have a whole separate set of programming on mentoring the mentors, where we go over topics with postdocs like how to teach someone to write a research paper, rather than write it for them, and how to help a student through difficulties,” Shulman says.

    The weekly student seminar, taught primarily by Short and Shulman, covers pragmatic matters essential to becoming a successful researcher — topics not always addressed directly or in the kind of detail that makes a difference. Topics include how to collaborate with lab mates, deal with a supervisor, find material in the MIT libraries, produce effective and persuasive research abstracts, and take time for self-care.

    Kortman believes camaraderie will help the cohort through an intense year. “This is a tight-knit community that will be great for keeping us all motivated when we run into research issues,” she says. “Meeting weekly to see what other students are able to accomplish will encourage me in my own project.”

    The seminar offerings have already attracted five additional participants outside the FUSars cohort. Adria Peterkin, a second-year graduate student in nuclear science and engineering, is sitting in to solidify her skills in scientific writing.

    “I wanted a structured class to help me get good at abstracts and communicating with different audiences,” says Peterkin, who is investigating radiation’s impact on the molten salt used in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors. “There’s a lot of assumed knowledge coming in as a PhD student, and a program like FUSars is really useful to help level out that playing field, regardless of your background.”

    Fusion research for all

    Short would like FUSars to cast a wide net, capturing the interest of MIT undergraduates no matter their backgrounds or financial means. One way he hopes to achieve this end is with the support of private donors, who make possible premium stipends for fusion scholars.

    “Many of our students are economically disadvantaged, on financial aid or supporting family back home, and need work that pays more than $15 an hour,” he says. This generous stipend may be critical, he says, to “flipping students from something else to fusion.”

    Although this first FUSars class is composed of science and engineering students, Short envisions a cohort eventually drawn from the broad spectrum of MIT disciplines. “Fusion is not a nuclear-focused discipline anymore — it’s no longer just plasma physics and radiation,” he says. “We’re trying to make a power plant now, and it’s an all hands-on-deck kind of thing, involving policy and economics and other subjects.”

    Although many are just getting started on their academic journeys, FUSar students believe this year will give them a strong push toward potential energy careers. “Fusion is the future of the energy transition and how we’re going to defeat climate change,” says Aurora. “I joined the program for a deep dive into the field, to help me decide whether I should invest the rest of my life to it.” More

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    Panel addresses technologies needed for a net-zero future

    Five speakers at a recent public panel discussion hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and introduced by Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner tackled one of the thorniest, yet most critical, questions facing the world today: How can we achieve the ambitious goals set by governments around the globe, including the United States, to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century?

    While the challenges are great, the panelists agreed, there is reason for optimism that these technological challenges can be solved. More uncertain, some suggested, are the social, economic, and political hurdles to bringing about the needed innovations.

    The speakers addressed areas where new or improved technologies or systems are needed if these ambitious goals are to be achieved. Anne White, aassociate provost and associate vice president for research administration and a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, moderated the panel discussion. She said that achieving the ambitious net-zero goal “has to be accomplished by filling some gaps, and going after some opportunities.” In addressing some of these needs, she said the five topics chosen for the panel discussion were “places where MIT has significant expertise, and progress is already ongoing.”

    First of these was the heating and cooling of buildings. Christoph Reinhart, a professor of architecture and director of the Building Technology Program, said that currently about 1 percent of existing buildings are being retrofitted each year for energy efficiency and conversion from fossil-fuel heating systems to efficient electric ones — but that is not nearly enough to meet the 2050 net-zero target. “It’s an enormous task,” he said. To meet the goals, he said, would require increasing the retrofitting rate to 5 percent per year, and to require all new construction to be carbon neutral as well.

    Reinhart then showed a series of examples of how such conversions could take place using existing solar and heat pump technology, and depending on the configuration, how they could provide a payback to the homeowner within 10 years or less. However, without strong policy incentives the initial cost outlay for such a system, on the order of $50,000, is likely to put conversions out of reach of many people. Still, a recent survey found that 30 percent of homeowners polled said they would accept installation at current costs. While there is government money available for incentives for others, “we have to be very clever on how we spend all this money … and make sure that everybody is basically benefiting.”

    William Green, a professor of chemical engineering, spoke about the daunting challenge of bringing aviation to net zero. “More and more people like to travel,” he said, but that travel comes with carbon emissions that affect the climate, as well as air pollution that affects human health. The economic costs associated with these emissions, he said, are estimated at $860 per ton of jet fuel used — which is very close to the cost of the fuel itself. So the price paid by the airlines, and ultimately by the passengers, “is only about half of the true cost to society, and the other half is being borne by all of us, by the fact that it’s affecting the climate and it’s causing medical problems for people.”

    Eliminating those emissions is a major challenge, he said. Virtually all jet fuel today is fossil fuel, but airlines are starting to incorporate some biomass-based fuel, derived mostly from food waste. But even these fuels are not carbon-neutral, he said. “They actually have pretty significant carbon intensity.”

    But there are possible alternatives, he said, mostly based on using hydrogen produced by clean electricity, and making fuels out of that hydrogen by reacting it, for example, with carbon dioxide. This could indeed produce a carbon-neutral fuel that existing aircraft could use, but the process is costly, requiring a great deal of hydrogen, and ways of concentrating carbon dioxide. Other viable options also exist, but all would add significant expense, at least with present technology. “It’s going to cost a lot more for the passengers on the plane,” Green said, “But the society will benefit from that.”

    Increased electrification of heating and transportation in order to avoid the use of fossil fuels will place major demands on the existing electric grid systems, which have to perform a constant delicate balancing of production with demand. Anuradha Annaswamy, a senior research scientist in MIT’s mechanical engineering department, said “the electric grid is an engineering marvel.” In the United States it consists of 300,000 miles of transmission lines capable of carrying 470,000 megawatts of power.

    But with a projected doubling of energy from renewable sources entering the grid by 2030, and with a push to electrify everything possible — from transportation to buildings to industry — the load is not only increasing, but the patterns of both energy use and production are changing. Annaswamy said that “with all these new assets and decision-makers entering the picture, the question is how you can use a more sophisticated information layer that coordinates how all these assets are either consuming or producing or storing energy, and have that information layer coexist with the physical layer to make and deliver electricity in all these ways. It’s really not a simple problem.”

    But there are ways of addressing these complexities. “Certainly, emerging technologies in power electronics and control and communication can be leveraged,” she said. But she added that “This is not just a technology problem, really, it is something that requires technologists, economists, and policymakers to all come together.”

    As for industrial processes, Bilge Yildiz, a professor of nuclear science and engineering and materials science and engineering, said that “the synthesis of industrial chemicals and materials constitutes about 33 percent of global CO2 emissions at present, and so our goal is to decarbonize this difficult sector.” About half of all these industrial emissions come from the production of just four materials: steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene, so there is a major focus of research on ways to reduce their emissions.

    Most of the processes to make these materials have changed little for more than a century, she said, and they are mostly heat-based processes that involve burning a lot of fossil fuel. But the heat can instead be provided from renewable electricity, which can also be used to drive electrochemical reactions in some cases as a substitute for the thermal reactions. Already, there are processes for making cement and steel that produce only about half the present carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

    The production of ammonia, which is widely used in fertilizer and other bulk chemicals, accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other industrial source. The present thermochemical process could be replaced by an electrochemical process, she said. Similarly, the production of ethylene, as a feedstock for plastics and other materials, is the second-highest emissions producer, with three tons of carbon dioxide released for every ton of ethylene produced. Again, an electrochemical alternative method exists, but needs to be improved to be cost competitive.

    As the world moves toward electrification of industrial processes to eliminate fossil fuels, the need for emissions-free sources of electricity will continue to increase. One very promising potential addition to the range of carbon-free generation sources is fusion, a field in which MIT is a leader in developing a particularly promising technology that takes advantage of the unique properties of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials.

    Dennis Whyte, the director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, pointed out that despite global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, “we use exactly the same percentage of carbon-based products to generate energy as 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.” To make a real difference in global emissions, “we need to make really massive amounts of carbon-free energy.”

    Fusion, the process that powers the sun, is a particularly promising pathway, because the fuel, derived from water, is virtually inexhaustible. By using recently developed HTS material to generate the powerful magnetic fields needed to produce a sustained fusion reaction, the MIT-led project, which led to a spinoff company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems, was able to radically reduce the required size of a fusion reactor, Whyte explained. Using this approach, the company, in collaboration with MIT, expects to have a fusion system that produces net energy by the middle of this decade, and be ready to build a commercial plant to produce power for the grid early in the next. Meanwhile, at least 25 other private companies are also attempting to commercialize fusion technology. “I think we can take some credit for helping to spawn what is essentially now a new industry in the United States,” Whyte said.

    Fusion offers the potential, along with existing solar and wind technologies, to provide the emissions-free power the world needs, Whyte says, but that’s only half the problem, the other part being how to get that power to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. “How do we adapt these new energy sources to be as compatible as possible with everything that we have already in terms of energy delivery?”

    Part of the way to find answers to that, he suggested, is more collaborative work on these issues that cut across disciplines, as well as more of the kinds of cross-cutting conversations and interactions that took place in this panel discussion. More

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    Powering the future in Mongolia

    Nestled within the Tuul River valley and embraced by the southern Khentii Mountain Range, Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia’s largest city, presents itself as an arena where nature’s forces wage an unrelenting battle against human resilience. The capital city is an icy crucible, with bone-chilling winters that plummet temperatures to an astonishing -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius). Mongolia, often hailed with the celestial moniker of “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” paradoxically succumbs to a veil of pollution and energy struggles during the winter months, obscuring the true shade of the cherished vista.

    To understand the root of these issues, MIT students from classes 22.S094 (Climate and Sustainability Systems: Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar at Scale) and 21A.S01 (Anthro-Engineering: Decarbonization at the Million-Person Scale) visited Mongolia to conduct on-site surveys, diving into the diverse tapestry of local life as they gleaned insight from various stakeholder groups. Setting foot on Mongolian soil on a crisp day in January, they wasted no time in shaking off the weariness of their arduous 17-hour flight, promptly embarking on a waiting bus. As they traversed the vast expanse of the countryside, their eyes were captivated by snow-laden terrain.

    That is, until a disconcerting sight unfolded — thick smog, akin to ethereal pillars, permeated the cityscape ahead. These imposing plumes emanated from the colossal smokestacks of Ulaanbaatar’s coal-fired power plants, steadfastly churning electricity and heat to fuel Mongolia’s central and district energy systems. Over 93 percent of the nation’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, where the most considerable load is caused by household consumption. Nevertheless, with nearly half of Ulaanbaatar’s population disconnected from the central heating networks, one of Mongolia’s most significant sources of pollution comes from coal-burning stoves in the residential settlements known as the ger districts. Over the past three decades, since the democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolians have grappled with escalating concerns surrounding energy provision, accessibility, and sustainability.

    Engineers who think like anthropologists

    “We find ourselves compelled to venture on-site, engaging in direct conversations with the locals, and immersing ourselves in the fabric of daily life to uncover what we don’t know,” emphasized Michael Short, professor in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and faculty lead of MIT’s NEET Climate and Sustainability Systems thread, shortly before heading to Mongolia.

    The Ulaanbaatar Project sprang from a multiyear collaboration between MIT and the National University of Mongolia (NUM). Shedding light on the matter, Professor Munkhbat Byambajav of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at NUM underscored the paramount importance of mitigating environmental pollution at an economic scale to alleviate the heavy burden borne by the people.

    Class 22.S094 is offered through MIT’s New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program, which allows students with multidisciplinary interests to collaborate across departments within four different subject areas, or threads. In this capstone project, students consider ways to decarbonize a city like Ulaanbaatar, transitioning from burning coal briquettes to a more sustainable, energy-efficient solution, given several parameters and constraints set by the local context.

    One of the ideas students have recently explored is a thermal battery made with molten salt that can store enough energy to heat a ger for up to 12 hours with added insulation for cooling curve regulation. The Mongolian ger, meaning home, is a dome-like portable dwelling covered in felt and canvas, held together by ropes traditionally crafted of animal hair or wool. Over several semesters, students have been testing a version of their proposed idea on campus, working with a prototype that weighs around 35 pounds.

    Nathan Melenbrink, the lead instructor of NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems (CSS) thread, believes that the complexity of the Ulaanbaatar capstone project allows students to reject the one-way solution approach and instead consider challenges with a nonprescriptive mindset. The uniqueness of the CSS thread is that students are asked to build on the previous findings from the past cohort and iterate on their designs each year. This workflow has allowed the project to mature and advance in ways that may not be feasible within a semester schedule. When asked how the recent trip impacted the ongoing research back on campus, Melenbrink states, “In light of the recent trip to Mongolia, students are beginning to see the impact of cultural immersion and social awareness leveraging the technical scope and rigor of their work.”

    Course 21A.S01, taught by Professor Manduhai Buyandelger of the MIT Anthropology Section, proved instrumental in deepening students’ understanding of the intricate dynamics at play. She asks, “The prototype works in the lab, but does it work in real life once you factor in the challenges in the larger structures of delivery, production, and implementation in Mongolia?”

    This recognition of the social dimensions of engineering permeated the early stages of the UB project, engaging all participants, including students from MIT and NUM, professionals residing in Mongolia, and local nongovernmental organizations, fostering what Buyandelger aptly describes as “a collaboration on multiple scales: trans-disciplinary and transcontinental.” Lauren Bonilla, co-lecturer for the anthropology course, was crucial in devising the first onsite trip to Mongolia. Drawing upon her extensive ethnographic research in Mongolia that spans decades, Bonilla remarks, “To me, engineering is a highly social discipline.” She further stresses how anthro-engineering elevates the social dimensions of engineering by critically questioning the framing of problems and solutions, stating, “It draws on anthropological insights and methods, like ethnography, to bring a human face to the users of a technology and adds complexity and nuance to the social constraints that limit designs.”

    Making of khorkhog

    Amidst the frigid atmosphere, a traditional Mongolian ger stands in front of the Nuclear Science Laboratory at the National University of Mongolia, emitting warm steam from its roof. The faculty and students of NUM organize a welcoming event inside the ger, inviting everyone to partake in a khorkhog cookout. Earlier that week, a remark from the Mongolian energy representative stood out during one of the presentations: “We need powerful heat. Solar is not enough, and electricity is not enough. Mongolians need fire,” he had emphasized.

    Indeed, the culinary delight known as khorkhog demands the relentless embrace of scorching flames. The process involves a large metal jug, stones, fire, and lamb. With skillful precision, the volunteer chef places the fire-heated stones and large pieces of lamb into the cooking container, triggering a cascade of steam that fills the ger, accompanied by the sounds of sizzling and hissing. Everyone waits patiently as the cook carefully inspects the dish, keenly listening for signs of readiness. And when the time comes, a feast is shared among all, complemented by steam-cooked potatoes, freshly sliced onions, and vegetables. In this moment, the presence of fire symbolizes a profound connection with the heart of Mongolian culture, evoking a deep resonance among the gathered crowd as they partake in this cherished staple meal.

    The distance between two points

    Familiar faces form a grid on the computer screen as the standing meeting between the students in Massachusetts and Ulaanbaatar begins. Sharing the morning (evening in Mongolia) for updates has been a critical effort by both sides to stay engaged and make decisions together. NEET CSS students in Cambridge proceeded to share their latest findings.

    Lucy Nester, a nuclear science and engineering major, has been diligently working on developing a high-efficiency electrical heating solution for individual consumers. Her primary focus is leveraging the discounted electricity rates available in the ger districts and utilize existing infrastructure. Recognizing the importance of maximum flexibility in heating the brick, Nester emphasizes the “no one-size-fits-all” solution. She shares the results of her test trials, which involve both inductive and resistive heating methods, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Despite her limited experience in electrical engineering and circuit building, Nester has impressively overcome the steep learning curve. She enthusiastically describes her UB trip as “one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had during my time at MIT.”

    Darshdeep Grewal, a dedicated materials science and engineering major with a strong passion for data science and computation, has been diligently conducting research on convection heating using COMSOL Multiphysics. In his investigation, Grewal explores the correlation between air temperature and heating, investigates the impact of convecting air arrangement on the heating process, and examines the conditions that may contribute to overheating. Leveraging his expertise in computational workflows, Grewal presents an impressive collection of heatmap simulations derived from the extensive data accumulated by his team throughout the project. Recognizing the immense value of these simulations in modeling complex scenarios, he highlights the importance of running experiments concurrently with simulations to ensure accurate calibration of results, stating, “It’s important to stay rooted in reality.”

    Arina Khotimsky, another materials science and engineering major, has actively engaged in NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems thread since her sophomore year. Balancing the demands of her final semester at MIT and the upcoming review of 22.S094, Khotimsky reveals how she has seamlessly integrated her project involvement into her energy studies minor. Reflecting on her journey, she remarks, “Working on the Ulaanbaatar project has taught me the significance of taking local context into account while suggesting solutions as an engineer.” Khotimsky has been tirelessly iterating and refining the insulation box prototype, which holds the thermal battery and controls the rate at which the battery releases heat. In addition, the on-site observations have unveiled another design challenge — ensuring the insulation box functions as a secure and dependable means of transportation. 

    To “engineer” means to contrive through one’s deliberate use of skills. What confronted the UB Project team on site was not the limitations of skill or technology, but the real-world constraints often amiss in the early equation: the people and their everyday lives. With over 6,195 miles of distance between the two groups, it takes more than just dedication to make a collaboration blossom. That may be the desire for a positive impact. Moreover, it may be the goal of cultivating a healthier relationship with energy that spans a million-person scale. No matter where you are, there is no one solution to the complex story of energy. This progressive realization brings the two teams together every two weeks in virtual space, bridging the distance between the two points.  More

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    Understanding boiling to help the nuclear industry and space missions

    To launch extended missions in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is borrowing a page from the nuclear engineering industry: It is trying to understand how boiling works.

    Planning for long-term missions has NASA researching ways of packing the least amount of cryogenic fuel possible for efficient liftoff. One potential solution is to refuel the rocket in space using fuel depots placed in low Earth orbits. This way, the spacecraft can carry the lightest fuel load — enough to reach the low Earth orbit to refuel as necessary and complete the mission. But refueling in space requires a thorough knowledge of cryogenic fuels.

    “We [need to understand] how boiling of cryogens behaves in microgravity conditions [encountered in space],” says Florian Chavagnat, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). After all, understanding how cryogens boil in space is critical to NASA’s fuel management strategy. The vast majority of studies on boiling evaluate fluids that boil at high temperatures, which doesn’t necessarily apply to cryogens. Under the advisement of Matteo Bucci and Emilio Baglietto, Chavagnat is working on NASA-sponsored research about cryogens and the way the lack of buoyancy in space affects boiling.

    A childhood spent tinkering

    A deep understanding of engineering and physical phenomena is exactly what Chavagnat developed growing up in Boussy-Saint-Antoine, a suburb of Paris, with parents who worked for SNCF, the national state-owned rail company. Chavagnat remembers discussing the working of trains and motors with his engineer dad and building a variety of balsa-wood models. One of his memorable projects was a sailboat propelled by a motor from an electric toothbrush.

    By the time he was a teenager, Chavagnat received a metal lathe as a gift. His tinkering became an obsession; a compressed air engine was a favorite project. Soon his parents’ small shed, meant for gardening, became a factory, Chavagnat recalls, laughing.

    A lifelong love of math and physics propelled a path to the National Institute of Applied Science in Rouen, Normandy, where Chavagnat studied energetics and propulsion as part of a five-year engineering program. In his final year, Chavagnat studied atomic engineering from INSTN Paris-Saclay, part of the esteemed French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

    The final year of studies at CEA required a six-month-long internship, which traditionally sets the course for a job. Chavagnat decided to take a chance and apply for an internship at MIT NSE instead, knowing his future course might be uncertain. “I didn’t take a lot of risk in my life, but this one was a big risk,” Chavagnat says. The gamble paid off: Chavagnat won the internship with Charles Forsberg, which paved the way for his admission as a doctoral student. “I selected MIT because it has always been my dream school,” Chavagnat says. He also enjoyed the idea of challenging himself to improve his English-speaking skills.

    A love of physics and heat transfer

    Chavagnat loves physics — “if I can study any problem in physics, I’d be happy” he says — which led him to working on heat transfer, more specifically on boiling heat transfer. His early doctoral research focused on transient boiling in nuclear reactors, part of which has been published in the International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer.

    Chavagnat’s research targets a specific kind of nuclear reactor called a material test reactor (MTR). Nuclear scientists use MTRs to understand how materials used in plant operations might behave under long-term use. Densely packed nuclear fuel, running at high power, simulates long-term effects using a very intense neutron flux.

    To prevent failure, operators limit reactor temperature by flowing very cold water at high velocity. When reactor heat power increases uncontrollably, the piped water begins to boil. Boiling works to prevent meltdown by altering neutron moderation and extracting heat from the fuel. “[Unfortunately], that only works until you reach a certain heat flux at the fuel cladding, after which the efficiency completely drops,” Chavagnat says. Once the critical heat flux is reached, water vapor starts to blanket and insulate the fuel elements, leading to rapidly rising cladding temperatures and potential burnout.

    The key is to figure out the behavior of maximum boiling heat flux under routine MTR conditions — cold water, high flow velocity, and narrow spacing between the fuel elements.

    Study of cryogenic boiling

    Boiling continues to occupy center stage as Chavagnat pursues the question for NASA. Cryogens boil at very low temperatures, so the question of how to prevent fuel loss from routine space-based operations is an important one to answer.

    Chavagnat is studying how boiling would behave under reduced or absent buoyancy, which are the conditions cryogenic rocket fuel will encounter in space.

    To reproduce space-like conditions on Earth, buoyancy can be modified without going to space. Chavagnat is manipulating the inclination of the boiling surface — placing it upside down is an example — such that buoyancy does not do what it usually does: help bubbles break away from the surface. He is also performing boiling experiments in parabolic flights to simulate microgravity, similar to what is experienced aboard the International Space Station.

    Chavagnat designed and built equipment which can perform both methods with minimum changes. “We observed nitrogen boiling on our surface by imaging it using two high-speed video cameras,” he says. The experiment was approved to go on board the parabolic flights operated by Zero-G, a company that operates weightless flights. The team successfully completed four parabolic flights in 2022.

    “Flying an experiment aboard an aircraft and operating it in microgravity is an incredible experience, but is challenging,” Chavagnat says, “Knowing the details the experiment is a must, but other skills are quite useful — in particular, working as a team, being able to manage high stress levels, and being able to work while being motion-sick.” Another challenge is that the majority of issues cannot be fixed once aboard, as aircraft pilots perform the parabola (each lasting 17 seconds) almost back-to-back.

    Throughout his research at MIT, Chavagnat has been captivated by how complex a simple phenomenon like boiling can truly be. “In your childhood, you have a certain idea of how boiling looks, relatively slow bubbles that you can see with the naked eye,” he says, “but you don’t realize the complexity until you see it with your own eyes.”

    In his infrequent spare time, Chavagnat plays soccer with the NSE’s team, the Atom Smashers. The group meets only five times a semester so it’s a low-key commitment, says Chavagnat who spends most of his time at the lab. “I am doing mostly experiments at MIT; it turns out the skills I learned in my shed when I was 15 are actually quite useful here,” he laughs. More

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    Exploring the bow shock and beyond

    For most people, the night sky conjures a sense of stillness, an occasional shooting star the only visible movement. A conversation with Rishabh Datta, however, unveils the supersonic drama crashing above planet Earth. The PhD candidate has focused his recent study on the plasma speeding through space, flung from sources like the sun’s corona and headed toward Earth, halted abruptly by colliding with the planet’s magnetosphere. The resulting shock wave is similar to the “bow shock” that forms around the nose cone of a supersonic jet, which manifests as the familiar sonic boom.

    The bow shock phenomenon has been well studied. “It’s probably one of the things that’s keeping life alive,” says Datta, “protecting us from the solar wind.” While he feels the magnetosphere provides “a very interesting space laboratory,” Datta’s main focus is, “Can we create this high-energy plasma that is moving supersonically in a laboratory, and can we study it? And can we learn things that are hard to diagnose in an astrophysical plasma?”

    Datta’s research journey to the bow shock and beyond began when he joined a research program for high school students at the National University Singapore. Tasked with culturing bacteria and measuring the amount of methane they produced in a biogas tank, Datta found his first research experience “quite nasty.”

    “I was working with chicken manure, and every day I would come home smelling completely awful,” he says.

    As an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Datta’s interests turned toward solar power, compelled by a new technology he felt could generate sustainable energy. By the time he joined MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, though, his interests had morphed into researching the heat and mass transfer from airborne droplets. After a year of study, he felt the need to go in a yet another direction.

    The subject of astrophysical plasmas had recently piqued his interest, and he followed his curiosity to Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering Professor Nuno Loureiro’s introductory plasma class. There he encountered Professor Jack Hare, who was sitting in on the class and looking for students to work with him.

    “And that’s how I ended up doing plasma physics and studying bow shocks,” he says, “a long and circuitous route that started with culturing bacteria.”

    Gathering measurements from MAGPIE

    Datta is interested in what he can learn about plasma from gathering measurements of a laboratory-created bow shock, seeking to verify theoretical models. He uses data already collected from experiments on a pulsed-power generator known as MAGPIE (the Mega-Ampere Generator of Plasma Implosion Experiments), located at Imperial College, London. By observing how long it takes a plasma to reach an obstacle, in this case a probe that measures magnetic fields, Datta was able to determine its velocity.   

    With the velocity established, an interferometry system was able to provide images of the probe and the plasma around it, allowing Datta to characterize the structure of the bow shock.

    “The shape depends on how fast sound waves can travel in a plasma,” says Datta. “And this ‘sound speed’ depends on the temperature.”

    The interdependency of these characteristics means that by imaging a shock it’s possible to determine temperature, sound speed, and other measurements more easily and cheaply than with other methods.

    “And knowing more about your plasma allows you to make predictions about, for example, electrical resistivity, which can be important for understanding other physics that might interest you,” says Datta, “like magnetic reconnection.”

    This phenomenon, which controls the evolution of such violent events as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, magnetic storms that drive auroras, and even disruptions in fusion tokamaks, has become the focus of his recent research. It happens when opposing magnetic fields in a plasma break and then reconnect, generating vast quantities of heat and accelerating the plasma to high velocities.

    Onward to Z

    Datta travels to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to work on the largest pulsed power facility in the world, informally known as “the Z machine,” to research how the properties of magnetic reconnection change when a plasma emits strong radiation and cools rapidly.

    In future years, Datta will only have to travel across Albany Street on the MIT campus to work on yet another machine, PUFFIN, currently being built at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). Like MAGPIE and Z, PUFFIN is a pulsed power facility, but with the ability to drive the current 10 times longer than other machines, opening up new opportunities in high-energy-density laboratory astrophysics.

    Hare, who leads the PUFFIN team, is pleased with Datta’s increasing experience.

    “Working with Rishabh is a real pleasure,” he says, “He has quickly learned the ins and outs of experimental plasma physics, often analyzing data from machines he hasn’t even yet had the chance to see! While we build PUFFIN it’s really useful for us to carry out experiments at other pulsed-power facilities worldwide, and Rishabh has already written papers on results from MAGPIE, COBRA at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, and the Z Machine.”

    Pursuing climate action at MIT

    Hand-in-hand with Datta’s quest to understand plasma is his pursuit of sustainability, including carbon-free energy solutions. A member of the Graduate Student Council’s Sustainability Committee since he arrived in 2019, he was heartened when MIT, revising their climate action plan, provided him and other students the chance to be involved in decision-making. He led focus groups to provide graduate student input on the plan, raising issues surrounding campus decarbonization, the need to expand hiring of early-career researchers working on climate and sustainability, and waste reduction and management for MIT laboratories.

    When not focused on bringing astrophysics to the laboratory, Datta sometimes experiments in a lab closer to home — the kitchen — where he often challenges himself to duplicate a recipe he has recently tried at a favorite restaurant. His stated ambition could apply to his sustainability work as well as to his pursuit of understanding plasma.

    “The goal is to try and make it better,” he says. “I try my best to get there.”

    Datta’s work has been funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Department of Energy. More